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S & H Opera Review

Britten, ‘Albert Herring’ cond. Michael Rosewell, dir. Sir Thomas Allen, Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, 2nd December 2002 (ME)


At about this time last year, the Royal College presented a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which easily outclassed many ‘main house’ efforts, and this production of ‘Albert Herring’ was on the same level, with no weaknesses amongst the cast and a staging which allowed the music to speak for itself. Sir Thomas Allen is of course no stranger to this work, having sung the part of Sid at Aldeburgh in 1974 in a production attended by the composer not long before his death, and with his commitment to the encouragement and inspiration of young singers it is no surprise that Allen chose to make his directorial debut with this perfect ensemble piece.

The set (by Roger Butlin) was elegantly simple, with the Herring’s shop looking as pristine as Lady Billows’ breakfast room: the basic framework was wrought-iron pillars resembling a cross between an East Anglian pier and the sort of railway station that one sees in black and white movies, enlivened with appropriate touches of colour from hanging greenery and assorted fruits. Against this pleasingly nostalgic backdrop, the action proceeded lovingly yet, at times, a little statically: Allen has said that he would really like to be ‘making an Ealing comedy where I could really indulge,’ and that love for period detail, gentle humour and quirkiness is very evident in his production.

It was clearly Allen’s aim to highlight the singing of a superb young ensemble, and in this he succeeded triumphantly. It was hard to believe that Claire Surman’s autocratic, slightly mad Lady Billows was sung by the same soprano who gave us such a dignified, nobly voiced Daughter of Zion in last season’s ‘Brockes Passion,’ so completely did this exceptional young singer immerse herself in the part: her Act 1 aria in which she denounces Loxford as a ‘spawning-ground of horror,’ her highly accomplished performance of the taxing ‘speech-song’ at the Feast, and her convincingly eccentric pronouncements – ‘Consider it m’duty!’ all made up a truly striking assumption of a difficult role. Her faithful henchwoman in small-town morality, Florence Pike, was sung with equal commitment by Wendy Dawn Thompson, who also delivered her words with great relish – ‘Advert in chemist’s window – indecent...tear it up!’

The other townsfolk were affectionately presented as the most eccentric bunch imaginable, yet each one preserved the essential quality of being a recognizable character; this was especially true of Andrew Kennedy’s Mayor – here again is a young singer one might barely recognize in this role after his Oedipus and Lysander, and as with those parts he sang with ringing tone and animated phrasing. Miriam Ryen’s Miss Wordsworth and Shannon Chad Foley’s Mr. Gedge owed a little something to Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble in their impersonations, and both sang with clarity and confidence; it was especially pleasing to hear how Ms Ryen’s tone seems to have filled out and become richer and even more beautiful since her Titania of last year.

Sion Goronwy is one of those singers who cannot fail to be recognizable, not just because he is immensely tall but because both his voice and stage presence live up to his size; to his superb Simone (Gianni Schicchi), Tiresias (Oedipus Rex) and Snug / Lion (MSND) he here adds another treasurable assumption, that of Superintendent Budd: his aria ‘Albert Herring’s clean as new-mown hay’ and the recitative about crime – ‘God preserve me from these disappearing cases!’ were both incisively sung and phrased, with firm tone and eloquent delivery. Jared Holt’s sardonically charming Sid, Elizabeth Ife’s sassy, sweetly sung Nancy, Jennifer Johnston’s all-too-convincingly mournful mother and the trio of ‘children’ played by Helen Massey, Simona Mihal (obviously a gifted comedienne) and Jeremy Solly were all cast from strength.

Robert Murray is yet another RCM student who has taken on a variety of roles and made them his own: he first came to my notice as the most hilarious MSND Flute I’ve seen, and here he extended his range to encompass this vulnerable yet ultimately triumphant anti-hero. He caught exactly the right mixture of pathos, mild rebellion and awkwardness of the character, especially in his witnessing of the courtship of Sid and Nancy, and his singing of ‘And I’m more than grateful to you all...’ was as convincingly done as I’ve ever heard it.

Perhaps the finest parts of this opera are the ensembles, especially the Threnody in which each character laments Albert’s presumed passing and unfulfilled hopes: they were superbly sung by everyone on stage and eloquently accompanied by the RCM orchestra under Michael Rosewell, who directed a beautifully shaded, lovingly detailed account of this comic opera which was the perfect vehicle for this young ensemble cast. There are two further performances on Wednesday 4th and Friday 6th, and I cannot think of another current performance more worthy of recommendation.


Melanie Eskenazi

Upper photo L to R = Jennifer Johnston (Mrs. Herring) Robert Murray
(Albert) Claire Surman (Lady Billows) Shannon Chad Foley (Mr. Gedge)

Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Lower photo L to R = Robert Murray (Albert) Claire Surman (Lady Billows)
Wendy Dawn Thomson (Florence)

Photo: Chris Christodoulou

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